Fantasia 2019 Review: ‘Sadako’ is An Overzealous Attempt at Reviving a Franchise

The phrase, “seven days,” has echoed through the heads of my generation since the release of The Ring in 2002. This Naomi-Watts-helmed horror film brought fear and terror to the heart of many in the States. But before 2002, there was Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Japanese film, Ringu, which first brought the fear of a cursed videotape to our collective consciousness. Nakata’s film is about a vengeful ghost, Sadako, and how she murders those who watch her videotape. Since its initial release, Ringu has been adapted into an English remake and spurred an entire Japanese franchise of sequels and showdown flicks (Sadako fights Kayako, the ghost from Ju-On). Now, Nakata has returned to the Ringu franchise with Sadako, which premiered at Fantasia Fest this year. Unfortunately, Nakata’s return did not bring back the scares or originality. 

To be clear about the Ringu canon, Sadako is meant to be a direct sequel to Ringu 2. That sounds straightforward on paper, but really, Rasen was the first sequel. Then Nakata returned to make Ringu 2 due to Rasen’s poor reception. There are two cinematic timelines for this franchise, and yes it is very confusing! None of this really seems to come into play in Sadako, though, other than just knowing who she is.

The film begins with a little girl locked in a closet with her mother claiming she is the reincarnation of Sadako. The mother tries to burn her daughter alive but Sadako appears and saves the little girl. We then pivot to psychiatrist Mayu Akikawa, who eventually meets this mysterious young girl when she’s brought into Akikawa’s care. Meanwhile, Akikawa is trying to help her younger brother, Kazuma, who has decided to be a YouTube sensation. One day, he decides to wander into a haunted apartment building—the one where the young girl lived—so he can make a viral video. He goes viral, but is cursed in the process. Akikawa must piece the puzzle together to find out how everything is connected and stop Sadako before she kills again.

There is just so much happening in Sadako and it all feels extremely disjointed. The narrative jerkily moves from the young girl, to Akikawa, to her brother, and back to Akikawa, trying to weave all these stories together but never really creating a complete product. Kazuma’s story is the most compelling because it builds on the idea of digital virality and how quickly videos can spread. The concept of virality has exponentially increased with the uncontrollable growth of the Internet, and it would have been fascinating to see what happens when millions of people watch Sadako. But, instead, we just watch Akikawa cope with an extremely vague trauma and try to grapple with the disappearance of her brother.

Instead of scares, Sadako goes for introspection which is not expected or necessarily wanted in a franchise film about a vengeful ghost. Sadako herself barely appears in the film and delivers one gnarly kill, and that’s about it. The impact is like a pillow to the head: soft, slightly shocking, but otherwise doesn’t leave much of an impression. 

Sadako seems to have a lot to say, but has no idea how to say it. It suffers from too many ideas but no real vision into how to execute them. I appreciate Nakata’s attempts to speak to a changing digital age but it falls to the wayside. It isn’t clear what Sadako is trying to achieve here, whether it is a commentary on influencer culture, addressing collective trauma, speaking to the horrors of mental health care, or perhaps something else entirely. What is clear is that Sadako delivers an unfortunately boring film that sucks the life from the cult franchise. Perhaps it’s time that Sadako stays dead for good. 

Read more of our Fantasia 2019 coverage here.

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